Slum upgrades key to disaster mitigation in Indian cities, analyst says

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Upgrading slums and giving tenancy rights to residents is key to climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation in India’s cities, an analyst said, as the country braces for extreme weather events of greater frequency and intensity.

A dog sits on the wall of a house at a slum area on the flooded banks of the river Yamuna in Allahabad, August 22, 2016. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash/Files

With 1.3 billion people and densely populated cities, India is particularly vulnerable to damage wrought by drought, cyclones, floods and extreme heat.

Improving the infrastructure in urban slums is essential to a city’s disaster preparedness, said Gautam Bhan, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Delhi.

“The answer to the question, how prepared is the city for extreme weather events, can only be answered in full by asking how prepared the city’s slums are, as they are the most vulnerable to a disaster,” he said.

“Everyone experiences these disasters, so they know how important it is to be prepared for them. It is the best argument for the need to upgrade and redevelop urban slums,” he said.

About 65 million people live in India’s slums, according to 2011 census data, but activists say this is a low estimate.

That number is rising quickly as tens of thousands of migrants leave their villages daily to seek better prospects in urban areas.

Many end up in overcrowded slums and informal settlements, lacking even basic facilities and with no claim on the land or the property, leaving them vulnerable to disasters.

Officials are increasingly recognising this fact, Bhan said.

In Odisha, a super cyclone in 1999 killed about 10,000 people but the most severe cyclone since, in 2013, killed fewer than 50 people after a mass evacuation of residents and measures including slum upgrades and early warning systems.

In a report, state officials noted slum dwellers lived in badly constructed homes alongside canals and drains, which often flood during heavy rains and cyclones, increasing the chance of fatalities.

Slum improvements, including construction of stormwater drains, sanitation infrastructure, embankments and roads, are key to reducing vulnerability, they said.

The state, which aims to be slum free by 2020, recently introduced two ordinances to grant land and property rights to about 200,000 slum households to enable upgrades.

Similarly, the disaster management plan for the coastal city of Visakhapatnam notes that most slums are located on hill sides and in low lying areas with poor drainage, increasing their vulnerability to cyclones and following outbreaks of disease.

In Ahmedabad, slum residents are being trained to clean stormwater drains to help prevent flash floods, and to use a warning system.

The challenge in making slum upgrades a part of all disaster plans is that various departments - including the climate cell and the housing division - tend to work in silos, Bhan said.

“City officials need to see slum upgrading in light of disaster preparedness,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But the connections are slowly being made.”